Posted on May 28, 2022

In Replacing Monuments, Communities Reconsider How the West Was Won

Erika Bolstead, Pew Research Center, May 23, 2022

In June 2020, protesters at the University of Oregon in Eugene toppled a statue called The Pioneer, which depicted a White man with a gun slung over his shoulder and a whip in his hand, and a second sculpture titled The Pioneer Mother.

Both monuments had drawn criticism from Indigenous student groups and historians for commemorating settler violence in the West.

Even as Southern states face a reckoning over Confederate monuments, communities in the Western United States are beginning to reconsider monuments that, in many locations, celebrate what dominant American culture has portrayed as the conquering of the region by Europeans.

Among them are hundreds of pioneer monuments, many of which celebrate White dominance over Indigenous people as the nation expanded west. Some were toppled or damaged during the racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd.

In Portland, protesters pulled down or damaged five statues in the summer and fall of 2020, including The Promised Land, a celebration of White westward expansion erected on the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail. Portland protesters also toppled monuments to Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, citing their policies and actions against Native Americans. And in Albuquerque, New Mexico, city officials removed a statue of the Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate after a shooting during a protest at the site.

Many Western cities, including Albuquerque, Denver and Portland, have been slow to replace statues or monuments toppled by the protests, or artwork that was removed from public display before they could be damaged. Some of the monuments likely will never return.

Instead, Western communities are beginning to consider what comes next for monuments, as well as what future public art projects should look like. Artists are leading many of those conversations, including in Portland, where dozens of people submitted monument concepts to a prototype exhibit sponsored by the arts group Converge45 last fall.


Pioneer monuments may appear to some observers as wholesome representations of the hard-working forebears of many White Westerners, said Cynthia Prescott, a professor of history at the University of North Dakota and the author of “Pioneer Mother Monuments.” When she first began documenting the effects of 200 or so pioneer mother monuments across the West, she thought of the genre as “grandma in a sun bonnet.”

But the monuments’ intent was far from benign.

She cites research from 2019 by University of Oregon scholar Marc Carpenter, who as a doctoral candidate looked at the speeches by donors and the intent of the sculptor when the Pioneer sculpture was installed at his university. (The same artist, Alexander Phimister Proctor, crafted the Roosevelt monument in Portland and a statue of Robert E. Lee in Dallas that was removed from public view in 2017 and now resides at a Texas golf resort.)

At the University of Oregon, it was obvious even to those who attended the installation of the statue that they were honoring not just White settlement, Carpenter suggests, but also remembering White dominance of Indigenous people. In a paper urging the University of Oregon to remove the Pioneer statue, Carpenter wrote that unlike the Confederate statues of the South, “in the West, our problematic monuments are to America’s other great sin, the violent seizure of Native lands and murder of Native peoples.”


In the months following the June 2020 shooting at the Oñate statue, the city of Albuquerque convened a Race, History and Healing Project to consider how to proceed with its monuments. The project concluded that year, but the city council has yet to take any action on a final reportA survey of 1,290 residents in Albuquerque found that 53% did not want the statue returned to its original location. Another 36% did, and 11% had another idea or didn’t state an opinion.

In Portland, as the city grapples with replacing or recontextualizing its toppled monuments, city leaders say they want to memorialize stories that were underrepresented in previous public art collections.


Monuments often have failed to tell a complete story of the history of the United States, said Paul Farber, the director of Monument Lab, a nonprofit public art and history studio based in Philadelphia. The lab, in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in late 2021 released a national audit looking at who and what gets memorialized in bronze and marble. Monuments shape our shared historical narratives and national memory, the audit notes, but also perpetuate existing injustices and inequality.

Monument Lab’s audit found that the nation’s monuments mostly reflect war and conquest; the monuments themselves mostly depict White and male figures. Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman and Sacagawea are the only women in the top 50 list, although “feminized bodies” often appear as “fictional, mythological, and allegorical figures,” the audit notes.